Cell phone data collection by law enforcement requires warrant, rules New Jersey

New Jersey saw a bill proposal surface last month that would allow law enforcement to confiscate a cell phone at the time of a crash to investigate whether a driver was distracted, leading to the incident. Such a proposal caused quite a bit of backlash, but at least one area in the state's battle between police needs and consumers' privacy has been resolved: a warrant must be obtained to get cell phone location data, according to a ruling.

The ruling came down from the New Jersey Supreme Court today, and with it is a requirement for law enforcement to acquire a warrant in order to get tracking information about a cell phone from the owner's carrier. Montana was the first state to require such a measure, and California nearly became the second before it was vetoed by the governor under the grounds that it didn't meet the needs of both law enforcement and citizens.

According to the state's supreme court, which ruled unanimously in favor of requiring a warrant, by entering into a contract with a carrier, the subscriber can "reasonably expect" that the private data resulting from their handset usage will remain private. Part of the ruling came in part from a US Supreme Court ruling in 2012 declaring it unlawful for law enforcement to place a GPS unit on a car without having a warrant. Says New Jersey, a smartphone functions in the same way.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said: "Using a cellphone to determine the location of its owner can be far more revealing than acquiring toll billing, bank, or Internet subscriber records. Details about the location of a cellphone can provide an intimate picture of one's daily life and reveal not just where people go ... but also the people and groups they choose to affiliate with. That information cuts across a broad range of personal ties with family, friends, political groups, health care providers and others."

The case cited one example where tracking information from a cell phone was used by law enforcement without a warrant, leading to the arrest of an individual discovered in a motel room with the goods he had stolen from various homes. The court has pushed the issue of whether an "emergency aid exception" to the ruling will be admissible to an appeals court.

SOURCE: The New York Times